UC Berkeley receives $25M grant for quantum computing research

UC Berkeley will be leading a $25 million Quantum Computing Center.
IBM Zurich Lab/Creative Commons
The National Science Foundation issued a $25 million grant to UC Berkeley as part of a multiuniversity initiative to conduct quantum computing research. (Photo by IBM Zurich Lab under CC BY 2.0)

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UC Berkeley received a $25 million grant from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, to establish a multiuniversity initiative aiming to develop and understand quantum computing.

The award was announced Tuesday and introduced the creation of the campus’s NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Present and Future Quantum Computing, or QLCI. While UC Berkeley has one of three NSF quantum research centers, it will share this grant with subawardees including UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and the California Institute of Technology.

“The NSF’s goal is to find timely, bold research agendas that showed a viable path forward that would allow breakthroughs with measurable impact within a five-year term,” said NSF spokesperson Robert Margetta. “To even be competitive in this program, proposers had to show that their focus met our intellectual merit requirement.”

This grant represents just one-third of the NSF’s $75 million investment into quantum computing research, with the other $50 million going to projects led by the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Quantum computers are built to do the heavy lifting that researchers need in order to work with larger, more complex figures that digital computers cannot handle. The fundamental difference between digital and quantum technology is the qubit, which is a unit of information. 

These quantum units are able to be in what researchers call “superpositions,” whereas digital computers operate on a binary of either one or zero, but not both simultaneously, according to Hartmut Häffner, associate professor of physics and co-principal investigator at UC Berkeley’s QLCI.

According to Häffner, recent initiatives to study quantum computing may have stemmed from building corporate interest — companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Atom Computing and IBM are listed as external collaborators on the campus QLCI project.

“This kind of research is happening at universities, and that’s where a lot of innovation is, but universities are not very well set up, I would say, to solve system engineering challenges. That’s more like what companies are much better at,” Häffner said. “At a research lab, you’re working with students who are learning new stuff, who are interested in new concepts, but they don’t yet have the work experience.”

A few main challenges, according to Häffner, currently limit our understanding and broad use of quantum computing: the lack of known algorithms, noise susceptibility and qubit control. These are just a few research topics that may be studied in the upcoming years throughout these university centers.

Alongside research, the grant will be used to fund the education and development of quantum scientists at the various university locations, including an upcoming master’s program at UCLA, according to Häffner.

“Of course, industry is maybe not so well set up to try out radically new ideas, and this is basically where universities come in again,” Häffner said. “We need to educate the workforce.”

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @skylardepaul.